In a democratic society, the decision to ban an organization when it is not directly responsible for violence is deeply controversial. Any such decision is surely not taken lightly. However, the Home Office proscription of the group Islam4UK announced today will only serve to undermine the government’s effort to prevent violent extremism.
It will not only strengthen the extremist narrative and ease the ability of propagandists to perpetuate the myth of a war against Islam, it also denies these individuals a legitimate political channel to air their grievances, possibly forcing them to pursue a more sinister and violent path.
The more effective policy would be to ignore their existence and stop giving Anjem Choudary a public platform. Proscription only adds fuel to the fire. Islam4UK is a despicable group. They are disingenuous and self-righteous in their claims to represent British Islam. On Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, Anjem Choudary the group’s leader attempted to equate the proscription of his organization with the denial of his ability to practice Islam. In his words, he would continue to pray and continue to hold the government to account, because he was a Muslim and thus could not help but to do so.
His righteous indignation belies what must be satisfaction that the government has afforded him such an opportunity to perpetuate and strengthen the myth that the war against violent extremism is in fact a war against Islam.
The Government’s decision it seems, is a more a product of political timing than legal reasoning. A political cocktail that started with the revelation of ‘Christmas pants bomber’ Abdulmuttalib’s time at UCL, combined with the announcement of the Wooten Basset march was enough to tip the balance.
However, there are three compelling arguments for why the Government’s decision is not only wrong, but also counterproductive. Firstly, extremist recruiters and propagandists will inevitably point to the proscription of Islam4UK alongside the election of the BNP, and the free operation of groups like the English Defense League as proof positive of a “war against Islam” and Western double standards. Basing their decision on the controversial and nebulous legal basis of glorifying of terrorism will not provide sufficient counterweight to their propaganda. The result will be the guise of fresh “evidence” for a war against Islam and potentially increased sympathy around this misguided idea.
Secondly, by driving the group and its supporters underground, the government effectively legitimizes their voices among supporters. Far from dissuading young men from its ideology, a ban could effectively result in increasing its appeal and ability to recruit, albeit surreptitiously. Our research has demonstrated that a number of young men who espouse an extremist ideology are drawn to it on account of it being “taboo”.
The excitement afforded by clandestine, underground activities can imbue feelings of importance, and the rightness of action in the face of “injustice and oppression”: providing a sort of cinematic salve to the monotony of everyday life. Moreover, extensive research has shown that the legitimacy and effectiveness of radical preachers is not derived from their scholarly knowledge, but rather their willingness to take on the Government. Finally, if no longer able to engage in symbolic acts or expressions of dissent, what other options are afforded to this group of misguided young men to support the cause they feel so passionately about?
Many of the individuals involved in Islam4UK are already beyond more moderate political engagement: it is not seen as effective or even slightly open to people such as themselves. More radical groups such as Islam4UK provided them with an opportunity to channel their anger and views in a political channel here at home, even if their expression was horribly distasteful. Our research into the relationship between violent and non-violent extremism, to be released in February, demonstrates that such channels can serve as a brake to more radical, violent actions such as travelling to fight abroad.
Imams and other community leaders who dissuaded these individuals did so by convincing them they could do more to serve Islam in Canada, by helping at the mosque or becoming politically engaged. With this avenue now closed in the eyes of Islam4UK’s supporters, what path will they take? The best approach to groups like Islam4UK is for the government, media and local community to simply ignore it: to deny Choudary of a public platform. The Dutch approach serves as a useful model. Instead of proscribing groups that are perceived to present a long term problem through their espousal of extreme views, the Dutch Government does not announce high profile proscriptions.
Rather, they allow such groups to operate, but they monitor them extensively and out in the open. This kind of day to day enforcement happens locally, beyond the front page, where it ought to be. The Government’s decision to proscribe Islam4UK has instead guaranteed that Choudary’s views will continue to dominate the airways for months, and possibly years, to come.
Jonathan Birdwell is a researcher at the think tank Demos and author of a forthcoming report on radicalisation.